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Lalo Schifrin's American Rhapsody

Lalo Schifrin is releasing a new autobiography called <em>Mission Impossible: My Life in Music</em>.
Joel Saget
AFP/Getty Images
Lalo Schifrin is releasing a new autobiography called Mission Impossible: My Life in Music.

As often happens with people from faraway places, composer Lalo Schifrin's first glimpse of America was in the movies.

He was growing up in Buenos Aires when he saw Rhapsody in Blue — 1945's Hollywood-ized version of the life of George Gershwin.

"I was very young at the time, maybe 12, 13 years old," Schifrin says. "And we went to see the movie Rhapsody in Blue with my mother, and my father and I really liked it."

But it was the music more than the movie that floored young Lalo.

"In Rhapsody in Blue, he uses the blue notes," Schifrin says. "It was fantastic."

"I didn't know anything about Gershwin," he says. "I went right away to a bookstore that sold American scores and I bought it and I learned it."

Next thing you know, he'd mastered it.

"As a matter of fact I played it in Buenos Aires with Symphony Orchestra," Schifrin says. "And I was very good. The next year, I played 'Concerto in F.' "

The Sound Of America

You could say this was the beginning of a lifetime — Lalo Schifrin's lifetime — of falling in love with, pursuing, influencing and embracing the American sound. A few years later, when Louis Armstrong came to perform in Buenos Aires, that clinched it.

"It was like I became converted. It was like a religious conversion, because I came from a classical background," he says. "My father was the concertmaster of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic and he trained me in classical music. My first piano teacher was Enrique Barenboim, who was the father of [Israeli conductor and pianist] Daniel Barenboim ... so I didn't know anything about jazz."

His awakening continued through high school.

"Of course, when I discovered modern jazz, modern American jazz, I converted to that," he says. "So Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, George Shearing — all these great players of that school. I remember the first time I heard a Charlie Parker record. It was 'Billie's Bounce' — I was very moved by it."

A Fateful Meeting

By the time Dizzy Gillespie came to Buenos Aires as part of a 1956 State Department tour, Lalo Schifrin was in his 20s. He'd been to Paris to study at the conservatory, and he'd formed his own big band. He'd swallowed the sound whole, and he was asked to play for the great Gillespie. Gillespie asked Schifrin what was by then an obvious question:

"He said, 'Would you like to come to the United States?' " Schifrin says. "I thought he was joking, but here I am. A handshake with Dizzy was better than any contract you could have with lawyers or anything. He said that, and I came."

Schifrin spent the early '60s playing and touring with Gillespie's band. Through Gillespie, he met everyone and played everywhere.

"I played with Coltrane, with Stan Getz," Schifrin says. "I did records with everybody. I mean, the greatest musicians of that era."

The Drama Of Music

And that's all very nice, but none of this is what made Schifrin famous. What we know him for in this country is his work as a very North American composer of film and television scores. He blames that on his early boyhood, too.

"I like opera," Schifrin says. "My father introduced me, even when I was a child, to opera. And I was fascinated by the idea of dramatic story that develops with music. I paid attention to Verdi, Puccini, Bizet..."

To Schifrin, Verdi's Otello seemed just like movie music.

"So that gave me the basis of becoming a film composer," he says. "Otello and all the others, Carmen, Tosca."

"The movies I had to do were not Tosca!" he hastens to add.

The shows and movies Schifrin scored were, indeed, not Tosca. But somehow he took his European influences, classical music, opera and so on; wrapped them in his conversion to American jazz; and made something distinctively, popularly American. His Mission Impossible theme, for example, is still one of the most memorable, imitated, parodied and beloved tunes in existence.

He went somewhere else again with the score to Norman Jewison's The Cincinnati Kid, about the battle between a junior and a senior poker player — Steve McQueen the arrogant youngster to Edward G. Robinson's old hand. And there was the celebrated music behind Cool Hand Luke.

"You remember, 'What we've got here is a failure to communicate,' " he says. "It became iconic. I learned a lot about bluegrass music because it happens in the South in a Southern prison during the Korean War."

If Schifrin had his way, we'd be combining all these forms.

"There's an imaginary world in which a street of Vienna intersects an avenue from New York," he says. "And in that corner, there is a tavern. And in the tavern, there's a piano. And there is Duke Ellington, Gustav Mahler, Ludwig van Beethoven and Dizzy Gillespie. And they are exchanging ideas. A gigantic jam session takes place."

And that gigantic jam session is pretty much what goes on in Lalo Schifrin's brain with every piece he writes.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sara Fishko